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Verrazano may be the brightest rising star in Todd Pletcher’s ample stable of Kentucky Derby hopefuls. He has been highly touted by racing fans and writers since his February allowance race at Gulfstream Park, where he destroyed the competition over a mile distance. This weekend, he took to the dirt in the Tampa Bay Derby and solidified his position as a top Triple Crown contender.

The Tampa Bay Derby was the first graded stakes contest for Verrazano, who was undefeated in two starts coming into the race. He entered the starting gate a big 2-5 favorite and could have been a major disappointment right from the start. As the gates opened, he stumbled, but recovered quickly
with Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez aboard. After his recovery he moved to the front, but yielded to Falling Sky who moved from the outside to run along the rail as Verrazano staked out the middle without being pushed. At half a mile, Falling Sky led, with Verrazano and Dynamic Sky just behind. On the turn, Falling Sky was fighting to keep his lead, but didn’t have enough to maintain his lead as Verrazano pulled past and away from him. Meanwhile, Java’s War was making up ground fast and down the stretch overtook Falling Sky and pursued the leader. Despite the tremendous rally from Java’s War, Verrazano was the class of the field and took the Tampa Bay Derby by three lengths without really being pushed. Java’s War was second, and Falling Sky finished seven lengths off the lead in third.

Pletcher was noticeably impressed by his colt’s performance following the race; “It was a good performance. He is a lot like his sire (More Than Ready); he has a great disposition and a great mind. You always worry about the variables—his first time shipping to a new place, the first time around two turns, the first time in a stakes. So we had a lot of variables he hadn’t seen before and he seemed to handle them real well.” {1}

The victory all but assures Verrazano a place in the Kentucky Derby, as he nabs 50 big points in the Derby Championship Standings. Following the race Pletcher was keeping his options open about where to run Verrazano next, which would likely be his final tune up before making his way to Louisville for the Derby. Possible destinations for him are the Arkansas Derby and Wood Memorial, but this win gives his training staff a lot of options moving forward.